Up to 2,500 mental health practitioners are joining primary care practices in England
“Thousands more mental health experts working as part of family doctor teams is a major boost for the NHS’ drive to integrate physical and mental health care and will not only mean more people get better care, but crucially will help hard-working GP teams to provide the best possible care for their patients”. Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive
Mental health experts have joined GP practices throughout England to offer specialist support to patients.
For every group of GP practices in a local area, the NHS is funding two mental health practitioners – up to 2,500 in total. These practitioners will offer support to people with severe mental health problems, including bipolar illness, psychosis or eating disorders. That support includes an initial consultation, which will be up to three times longer than a standard GP appointment. That will be followed by treatment, peer support or a referral to hospital teams. Patients will not need an initial GP consultation.
Primary care and mental health trusts will work together to offer one single service to patients, while GPs will be freed up to focus on routine care.
Almost 500 mental health practitioners, including community psychiatric nurses, clinical psychologists and mental health occupational therapists, are already working in GP surgeries across England.
Demand for NHS mental health services has significantly increased following the pandemic – and the NHS is treating more children and young people than ever before, with over a fifth more children treated this year compared to before the NHS Long Term Plan.
The number of adults referred to community mental health services has also increased by nearly one fifth since the start of the pandemic. More than 710,000 adults were referred to mental health services in the 12 months ending in March 2022, up from 604,362 in the 12 months up to March 2020.
Pilot schemes in Teesside have resulted in two mental health nurses seeing more than 1,600 patients over six months in GP surgeries. More than seven in 10 patients said they would recommend the service.
Amanda Pritchard, the NHS chief executive, said that the service would act as a “lifeline”. She added: “NHS patients and their families know that better access to NHS mental health support in their community, including through their local GP, not only goes with the grain of how people like to seek help, but also helps with common conditions before they escalate into something even more serious or something that can result in a stay in hospital.
“Thousands more mental health experts working as part of family doctor teams is a major boost for the NHS’ drive to integrate physical and mental health care and will not only mean more people get better care, but crucially will help hard-working GP teams to provide the best possible care for their patients”.
The NHS national mental health director, Claire Murdoch, said: “Providing specialist mental health support at local family doctors’ surgeries is another key milestone in the journey to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health, as the NHS works alongside government to introduce new access standards for mental health patients”.
Integrating specialist mental health practitioners into GP surgeries is potentially a huge step forward. At a time when the number of people seeking mental health help is rising steeply, it means that patients will be able to access the help they need in a timely fashion without first waiting for a GP appointment. It will also help reduce the burden on GPs, who are currently struggling with heavy workloads. We are concerned, however, about where the NHS will find 2,500 mental health experts, given the current shortage of mental health practitioners. Drawing such practitioners away from other parts of the NHS could lead to poorer patient care elsewhere.